May 16, 2020

The Greatest “Oh So Close” New York Rangers Teams in History

2014 Rangers (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

As we prepare for what we hope is news that the NHL will ends its pause and proceed with a 24 team tournament style playoffs that includes the Rangers. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at some Rangers squads that came oh so close to capturing Lord Stanley’s gleaming silver chalice.

Yes, the grim reality is that only one Rangers team in the last 80 years has achieved hockey immortality. However, if not for some unlucky bounces, egregiously bad officiating and freakish, untimely injuries, it is quite possible, if not probable, that there would be more than just four Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

The Stanley Cup is universally considered to be the most difficult trophy to capture in any of the team sports. The playoff tournament winner has to endure through and come out victorious after four rounds of best-of-seven series. No longer can a hockey team reach the Promised Land on sheer talent alone. The NHL playoffs has evolved into a survival of the fittest/war of attrition that is not for the faint of heart. Having said all of that, we will examine the aspirational Ranger teams in the post-expansion era (since 1968) that came up millimeters short of the proverbial finish line.

1978-79: Rangers lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Montreal Canadiens 4-1

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When the 1978-79 Rangers are mentioned, it has become obligatory and Pavlovian to start any and all conversations with the super-human playoff goaltending performance of John Davidson. “JD” carried his Rangers team on his 6’4″ frame to series victories over the LA Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, and, of course, the shocking upset over the rival and heavily favored NY Islanders in the semi-finals. Once the Rangers got to the final round, they had very little gas left in their collective tanks and were no match for the powerful Canadiens dynasty. We’ll never know how the Rangers would have fared against Montreal with a healthy Ulf Nillson, the player in which Denis Potvin injured that gave birth to the infamous chant. Nillson’s broken leg suffered on February 25th, 1979 certainly falls under the “freakish, untimely injury” category.

2011-12: Rangers lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New Jersey Devils 4-2

NY Times

If John Davidson is unquestionably synonymous with the 1979 Rangers, then Henrik Lundqvist is equally as identifiable with the 2011-12 bunch. Not only did “The King” capture the Vezina Trophy that season as the league’s best goalie, but Lundqvist also set career bests for wins (39), GAA (1.97) and save percentage (.930%). Throw in eight shutouts and his scintillating performance in that season’s Winter Classic, which included that now legendary penalty shot save on Danny Briere with 20 seconds left in regulation, and it’s no wonder why the Rangers were just two wins shy of reaching the Finals.

Lundqvist was able to drag his tired team to game seven victories over the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals in the early playoff rounds. However, once the Rangers all-time leader in wins started to tire himself, the Devils, after being down 2-1 in the series, would go on to win three straight games and the series culminating with Adam Henrique sticking a dagger through the torsos of each and every member of the Garden Faithful with his game six overtime tally.

2013-14: Rangers lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the LA Kings 4-1

AP

The 2014 Rangers playoff run was a true Cinderella story. After finishing the regular season with 96 points and after struggling to beat a very average Flyers team in the first round of the playoffs, the Rangers faced a daunting 3-1 series deficit against the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins in the next round. Then came the sad and unfortunate passing of Marty St. Louis’ mother, France, and all of a sudden, something very strange happened. The Rangers morphed from a sad-sack team making plans for summer vacation into an absolute juggernaut. The Blueshirts stormed back from the seemingly insurmountable deficit to steal the series away from the Steel City inhabitants. Then, the Rangers traveled north of the border to Montreal, where they ran over the Canadiens taking the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2.

Amazingly, the New York Rangers were in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Los Angeles Kings. The Finals were as excruciating a series as anyone could have possibly imagined, especially the three contests played on the west coast. You see, the Rangers lost all three games played in Staples Center in overtime. And the second of those games will forever be known by the Garden Faithful as the egregiously horrific missed goalie interference call in which referee Dan O’Halloran determined that Kings forward Dwight King was in the goalie crease legally and therefore, did not interfere with the exasperated Lundqvist and his ability to play his position.

2014-15: Rangers lost the Eastern Conference Finals to the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3

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The 2014-15 team was the most likable bunch of Blueshirts since the magical year of 1994. The 2014-15 season was the most exciting since Mark Messier and co. permanently silenced the nauseating 1940 chant. Not only did AV’s squad capture the President’s Trophy that season, but they also set team records for wins (53) and points (113). The Rangers would also sweep the season series that year from the New Jersey Devils which is always a plus. The Rangers that season were fast, deep, talented, driven and a whole lot of fun. Finishing with the most regular-season points meant the Blueshirts would have the home ice advantage in every playoff series.

The first round match-up against the Penguins ended with a game five “Golden Goal” from speedy winger Carl Hagelin. The second round battle with the Capitals ended with a game seven “Golden Goal” from center Derek Stepan. Their third round match-up with the Tampa Bay Lightning ended with an emphatic thud as the Rangers string of game seven magic ended with a sleepy 2-0 loss sending the team from Florida’s Gulf Coast to the finals and the Rangers to answer all of the “what happened” questions. The 2014-15 Rangers loss to Tampa is an anomaly of sorts as it is the only series on this list that does not include a bad bounce, ball call or bad injury. The Rangers simply ran out of gas and lost to a better team.

1971-72: Rangers lost to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals 4-2

NHL

The Rangers of the early 1970s are actually considered by some hockey historians as one of the best teams in NHL history to not win the Stanley Cup. After all, this time period was when the GAG line ran roughshod over the rest of the NHL. This was the era of “Ed-die, Ed-die.” This was when defenseman Bard Park finished second to Bobby Orr in the Norris Trophy voting year after year. This was when Madison Square Garden was the most intimidating and menacing arena for road teams in the entire league.

The 1972 Rangers entered the playoffs that Spring on a mission. They knocked off the defending Cup champion Montreal Canadiens in the first round, and then swept Bobby Hull, Stan Makita, and the Chicago Blackhawks in the following round. Next up, in the finals, were the aforementioned Orr, Phil Esposito and the rest of the big, bad Boston Bruins. The great Jean Ratelle, who had sustained a broken ankle in March of that year, tried returning for the finals. Unfortunately, #19 was a shell of his former self, registering just one measly assist in the six finals games. Similar to Ulf Nilsson’s injury in 1979, we’ll never know if the Rangers would have beaten Boston in the 1972 Finals if Ratelle was healthy and playing at full strength.

1991-92: Rangers lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Patrick Division Finals 4-2

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Ironically, the year in which I feel, more than any other year, SHOULD HAVE ended with a Rangers parade down the Canyon of Heroes is the only team on this list that did not win at least two playoff rounds. I’ll explain my reasoning momentarily.

If I could describe the 1991-92 Rangers in one word, that word would be “machine.” Head coach Roger Nielson, along with Hart Trophy winner Mark Messier, Norris Trophy winner Brian Leetch, and All-Star goalie Mike Richter, completely dominated the rest of the NHL. The Rangers in 1991-92 were the only team to eclipse the 50 wins and 100 points marks. Their goal differential of plus-75 was tops in the entire league. The Rangers were skilled. The Rangers were tough. The Rangers were deep. The Rangers had moxie. In other words, the Rangers of 1991-92 had all the makings of a true Stanley Cup contender. It is the belief of yours truly, that if not for one atrocious gaffe by their All-Star goalie, the Rangers would have, in fact, ended the Stanley Cup drought and silenced that infuriating 1940 chant two years earlier.

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To this day, there is no question in my mind that if Mike Richter made what should have been the most routine of saves, the Rangers would have won that game, the series, and the Stanley Cup. After all, the Penguins, starting with the game in question, game four, did not lose another contest the rest of the way. They would sweep the Bruins in round three and sweep the Blackhawks in the finals. You could chalk up the Francis 70-foot slap shot to a band bounce if you really want to get technical. The puck seemed to dip right as it approached the surprised Ranger goaltender. Be that as it may, this was a save that Mike Richter needed to make. Thankfully for Rangerstown, #35 made up for his error in 1992 by backstopping the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994.

Debates like these tend to be generational, so I look forward to reading your comments as to which was the best Rangers team not to win the Stanley Cup.

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